Saturday, May 16, 2009

NCIS series 5 finale - unpicking the formula

I'll have to come clean and admit to following NCIS. Why the unease at this admission? Perhaps because it is unashamedly comfort television rather than challenging drama. But I recon there's room for a little comfort food in every balanced diet.

NCIS poster
So - without giving anything away that hadn't been well trailed before the broadcast - one of the central core of characters dies at the end of the penultimate episode and the investigation then follows through to its conclusion. NCIS has done this before, cutting out and replacing core characters.

I'd like to compare the NCIS formula to three other screenwriting recipes:

First, the obvious comparison. CSI. Both seem to be about the investigation of crimes using forensics. NCIS is a federal naval investigation setup. CSI is linked to the regular police investigating homicide. I'm no expert on these things, but it seems vanishingly unlikely that either reflects reality. Each has a small team of investigators doing everything from shaking test tubes to arresting suspects. On the surface that makes them more or less identical.

CSI poster The key difference is that CSI is primarily about the crimes and their investigation, whereas NCIS is primarily about the characters and their relationships. (Each has elements of both, but the ballance is different). Take the NCIS season 5 finale as an example. Looking back on it, the crime detection aspect was more or less irrelevant and the big hook at the very end was concerned with a threat to the relationships between the characters.

Perhaps NCIS is more similar to long running relationship-based TV dramas such as Alley McBeal. In each we have a small group of individuals with characteristics simple enough to be defined in a couple of sentences. With each, the events are secondary to the relationships.

Ally McBeal poster
However, Alley McBeal retained the same central cast from start to finish, whereas NCIS is prepared to kill off a central character and reshuffle the deck from time to time. Without reshuffle, a relationship drama is more or less doomed to eventual plot burnout. Other examples of this are Northern Exposure and Sex and the City. By the final season a good proportion of viewers are shouting at the television: "Get married and have done with it!"

All the above examples are American. It seems to me that the team writing and studio system practiced in America tends to produce excellent quality of material but will only stop for commercial reasons. The British system - which seems to give more control to a single writer, or possibly a very small team - doesn't always sustain the same high-quality for long, but it knows when to pull the plug for artistic reasons.

What about a movie plot? I'll use the crime movie Insomnia as an example. It too is about the detection of a crime using forensics. It too is driven by questions of character. But where the plot of an NCIS episode usually brings the characters back to more-or-less the place they started, the plot of Insomnia takes the central character to a completely different place. The journey is completed. There is no room for another episode.

Insomnia poster
My question is - have the writers of NCIS got a system for avoiding plot burnout? I guess I'll have to wait for season 6 to find out.

(Please, if you live in the US and have already got to season 6 - no spoilers in comments!)


Paul Lamb said...

I've never watched NCIS, and I've only occasionally seen CSI (and I don't much care for it). I have to say that I have the highest respect for Ricky Gervais, who had the good sense to end The Office and Extras when the story lines reached fulfillment. Not so with the American version of The Office which seems to have wandered into the creative wilderness (so sayeth those in my acquaintance who report to me -- I haven't watched it in years).

Rod Duncan said...

If you think of the cream of Brit TV comedy, most of it had very short runs. I think that is due to the writers rather than the studios having control.

Leigh Russell said...

I haven't seen NCSI but surely one way in which CSI differs from real life is that so many of its characters are very good looking. Or are forensic teams in the US a glamourous bunch?

(And why does everyone in America need to have such perfect teeth?)

Rod Duncan said...

Hi Leigh,

Good point. :-)

The differences between fiction and reality are so many, yet we get used to certain codes within the world of narrative and somehow accept them without noticing. Or, we do if the writers are doing their jobs right!

Thanks for visiting the blog.


Paul Lamb said...

C'mon, Leigh. Isn't the reason obvious. We Americans are a superficial bunch. Or as a wise man once said, "got to be good lookin' cause he's so hard to see!"


Rod Duncan said...